Rico Mayors Protest Military Bombing Exercises in Off-Shore Municipality of
Puerto Rican protests
against the U.S. Navy's continued use of the off-shore island of Vieques
came to a head May 4 as Carolina (PR) Mayor Jose Aponte, two U.S.
congressional representatives and 224 individuals were peaceably arrested by
federal marshals and Puerto Rican police.
Mayor Aponte and the
other protesters were removed from the naval bombing range on Vieques in
advance of renewed military assault and bombing exercises after a year-long
moratorium following the bombing death of a civilian U.S. Navy employee. The
U.S. Conference of Mayors, led by Conference President Denver Mayor
Wellington E. Webb, has supported Puerto Rico's mayors in their stance that
Vieques should no longer be used for the dangerous and destructive
maneuvers. The Navy's use of Vieques for bombing and training exercises has
received heavy public criticism and scrutiny since April of last year.
In October last year,
Conference President Webb, Lynn (MA) Mayor Pat McManus, Wilmington, (DE)
Mayor James Sills Jr. and Bridgeport (CT) Mayor Joseph Ganim participated in
a press conference in San Juan City Hall. The mayors were in Puerto Rico
attending an annual Urban Water Summit of the Conference of Mayors, hosted
by Mayor Calderon. During the conference, Webb pledged Conference of Mayors
support for the position of San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon which urged the
Navy to end their involvement in Vieques and cease their use of the island
for live-fire bombing exercises. Calderon is the mayor of the capital city
of Puerto Rico and a Trustee of the Conference. On returning to the
mainland, Webb wrote a letter to President Clinton on behalf of The U.S.
Conference of Mayors urging the immediate cessation of the exercises in
Vieques and the return of the lands to the control of local authorities.
During the Conference's
annual winter meeting in Washington in January, Conference President Webb,
during a plenary session address again reiterated the Conference's support
of policy opposing further Navy bombing on Vieques. The conflict between the
U.S. Navy and Puerto Rico has received widespread attention in the United
States and throughout the world as protesters occupied Navy property on the
island. In his remarks Webb described the conditions in Vieques as "unacceptable
for the mainland United States and unacceptable for the people of Puerto
Rico and Vieques."
Policy Since 1970
The U.S. Conference of
Mayors has supported prior policy on this issue concerning naval use of a
neighboring Puerto Rican island, Culebra, since 1970 when then San
Juan Mayor Carlos Romero Barcelo brought the issue of naval exercises there
to the attention of the Conference. Similar circumstances surrounding the
use of Culebra for live-fire bombing and shelling exercises took place, also
resulted in Puerto Rico-wide protests at that time. Ultimately, official
investigations and hearings at that time resulted in the cessation of all
live-fire exercises there. While military assault training was completely
discontinued on Culebra and the property returned to local control, until
last year it has continued unabated in Vieques. Romero is presently the
island's non-voting delegate in Congress.
The protesters have been
demonstrating against the continued use of Vieques for these live-fire
military assault exercises which for decades have included explosive-laden
bombs and other live ammunition and ordnance. Training had been suspended on
Vieques since April last year when the death of David Sanes Rodriguez, a
civilian security guard at the site, resulted from an inaccurate bombing run
by an F-18 where two bombs were targeted at the observation tower where
Rodriguez was keeping watch. Protesters began to occupy the site shortly
afterwards as increasing civil discontent with the Navy's treatment of
Vieques spilled over.
The tragic death of
Sanes resulted in unprecedented island-wide unity and cross-party political
cooperation in efforts and calls for an end to the use of Vieques by the
Navy. For decades, these exercises have been conducted on the bombing range
on the island over 180 days a year within 8 miles of the civilian
population. The military has been involved in Vieques since 1941 when the
lands were appropriated, to be used later by the Navy.
Also among those
arrested during the peaceful removal of demonstrators on May 4 were two
Puerto Rican congressional representatives Nydia Velasquez (NY) and Luis
Gutierrez (IL). Earlier, Vieques Mayor Manuela Santiago had expressed fears
on the island that the removal of the demonstrators would become violent.
The Vieques controversy has received widespread national attention in the
press and television media.
Broken Agreements Result in Mistrust of Navy
Vieques comprises 33,000
acres of which two-thirds are utilized by the US Navy leaving the population
of 9,300 U.S. citizens to live in the remaining 11,000 acres. Vieques
residents have long held grievances against the Navy's failure to live up
to the tenets of a 1983 Memorandum of Understanding and Environmental
Protection Agency regulations which have resulted in an image of an island
suffering from naval abuse.
Complaints against the
navy's use of Vieques are found in continually high unemployment rates of
about 50 per cent, minimal economic development, a diminished fishing
industry and depleted fish stocks, high rates of poor mental and physical
health amongst the people of Vieques and devastating environmental damage to
wildlife, lands, rivers and coral reefs.
The assault ranges are
littered with unexploded bombs and other ordnance, shelled military vehicles
and other military debris. In May of last year, the Navy admitted it had
mistakenly fired 267 rounds tipped with depleted uranium at Vieques the
previous February in violation of federal laws. In July the Navy reversed
earlier denials and admitted using napalm on the island in 1993.
Commission was set up in 1999 to examine the Vieques controversy after
official representations from the Puerto Rican government. During one visit
by representatives of the Commission, Vieques Mayor Santiago said, "We,
the people of Vieques, firmly believe in the concept and idea of a common
national defense - but never at the cost of our human and civil rights'.
Puerto Rico - Navy
Agreement in January
On January 30 the White
House brokered an agreement between Puerto Rico and the Navy which permits
the resumption of the exercises. Under the agreement the number of days per
year that exercises would be conducted would be halved to 90 days and
explosives-laden bombs and ammunition will be replaced with inert or
non-explosive types. In exchange for permitting resumption of the exercises
until a municipal referendum scheduled for 2001 $40 million will be provided
in an economic development aid package. If the residents of Vieques oppose
the continued use of the island for the exercises the Navy will leave in
2003. If they support the continued use of the range a further $50 million
of development aid will be provided to the island. The implementation of the
agreement has already resulted in the return of property from the Navy to
government control. The property will be used for the expansion and
development of the municipal airport to improve island access. The expansion
will include a runway extension whose purpose is to permit larger aircraft
to land on the island to increase passenger and visitor traffic.
Around the Country
Minor protests took
place in New York city with many local politicians speaking out against the
forced removal of the demonstrators and resumption of the exercises.
According to a New York Times article citing web-based information sources,
protests were also held outside federal buildings in Springfield, MA,
Orlando, FL and elsewhere. Representative Jose Serrano (NY) was arrested in
Washington for unlawfully entering and protesting on the White House
grounds. Cuban-American activists in the recent Miami case of Elian
Gonzalez had urged restraint on the part of federal authorities in
solidarity with the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico.
Flags Fly at
Half-Mast at San Juan City Hall
Meanwhile on April 19,
San Juan Mayor Sila Calderon announced that flags at City Hall and at other
municipal agencies would fly at halt-mast along with white flags as a
tribute to David Sanes Rodriguez. The white flags would be symbolic of the
municipality's solidarity with the people of Vieques. Mayor Calderon is the
Popular Democratic Party candidate for Governor of Puerto Rico in November.
She is opposed by Carlos Pesquera, of the pro-statehood New Progressive
Party and current Puerto Rico Secretary of Transportation.